CURRY vs. The Crazies

Last week was an interesting political week for Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry.

Even before Monday dawned, his team had nailed down a tentative pension deal with the police and fire unions.

After tough talk from both sides, a deal was struck: The mayor got rid of defined benefit pension plans for new hires (instead opting for a 25 percent defined contribution hit). The unions got all current employees a 20 percent raise over three years, a 3 percent bonus, better benefits for hires since 2015, and death/disability benefits for new hires that compare with what is in place now.

Having watched most of the negotiation, I thought it was good theater and good faith bargaining, though not always both at the same time. Both sides compromised so they could lock up the guaranteed revenue from the sales tax extension they worked to pass last August. Though the Police & Fire Pension Fund balked at the timetable, at this point, the administration believes the deal is on track. Time will tell, of course.

Tuesday saw Curry get what looked like a best-case scenario on the HRO.

Council President Lori Boyer ran the meeting impeccably, proving that she is arguably the strongest and most respected politician of any kind locally. Voting on the bill in sequence, in the middle of the third reading ordinances, was brilliant — it choked off any possible interference or inflammatory language from public comment.

The stupid amendments didn’t fly. They kept falling by 13 to 5 margins — in no small part because the two smartest people on the No side, Councilmen Bill Gulliford and Matt Schellenberg, didn’t have much useful help from the other opponents.

Meanwhile, the Yes side had the elements of a real coalition. Republicans and Democrats, buoyed by a sympathetic media and a donor class ready to get the deal done.

The bill passed, 12 to 6. Almost immediately thereafter, Curry issued a statement via his comms team. The supermajority on the vote proved to be a meaningful enough threshold for the mayor, who could’ve vetoed the bill and forced a council override, but decided not to invest his political capital in a losing cause.

Curry’s position boiled down to this: Though I wasn’t and am not convinced this legislation was necessary, people from both parties and all over town voted for it, so I’m going to let it become law without signature.

That statement went out to the media during public comment while expansion advocates whooped it up in Hemming Park.

Problem solved? Yes, and problem created.

Curry did a presser Wednesday, reiterated his position, and — as a measure of where the media were on it — took a fairly stiff question from the TV people on whether or not he should’ve signed the bill. The question, in essence: “Why didn’t you have the cojones to sign the bill?”

As someone who predicted the mayor would take the “look, council is the policy-making body, and they made policy” tack as the path of least resistance, I wasn’t surprised. Curry, going back to the days when he was a local party officer, knew he had to cultivate the local GOP crazies, giving them rhetorical reassurances even as he moved policy in the direction the Chamber, Civic Council, Shad Khan and Peter Rummell all expect.

The case for HRO expansion was a utilitarian and an economic one, as much as a moral one. How much longer could Jacksonville keep the lack of codified LGBT rights out of the news?

Curry took a careful position, one that got him hit from the left and the right … but especially the right. Some old acquaintances texted him, calling him a “former Republican” and a “former Christian.” The emails came in, imploring Curry to veto the bill — as if he ever reverses course in response to public pressure.

They called him names, threatened to withhold support, laid into him for saying in 2015 that he would’ve vetoed legislation in 2012, but in 2017 withheld his veto (which would have been overridden anyway, and which would have damaged a strong working relationship with council, and support from his real base – the donor class).

Lenny Curry is a “rip the Band-Aid off” type for a reason. He knows that in this city, where there are a dozen good reporters mixed in with a bunch who pause here for a year before moving on, that the best way to run his office is by setting and owning the narrative.

The hard right is compromising that. And they’re on a short leash.

File this away for March: If the anti-HRO types keep agitating against Curry, make no mistake — they will be buried.